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J Parasitol. 2002 Apr;88(2):258-63.

Fertility insurance and the sex ratios of malaria and related hemospororin blood parasites.

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  • 1Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology, University of Edinburgh, UK.


The sex ratio (z*; proportion of gametocytes that are male) of malaria and related hemospororin blood parasites has been predicted to be related to the inbreeding rate (f) by the simple equation z* = (1 - f)/2. Although there is some empirical support for this prediction, there are several cases where the sex ratio is less female biased or more variable than expected. Here, we present a theoretical model that may be able to explain some of these discrepancies. We show that if low gametocyte densities lead to a danger that female gametes may not encounter any male gametes, then natural selection favors a less female-biased sex ratio as a form of 'fertility insurance' to ensure that female gametes are mated. This model can be applied to a number of situations. In particular, (1) empirical data suggest that the number of gametocyes per blood meal can be low enough to favor fertility insurance in some Plasmodium infections in humans and (2) our model predicts facultative shifting toward less-biased sex ratios in response to immune pressure that reduces gametocyte or gamete survival or mobility, consistent with some recent experimental data from Plasmodium species of birds and mice.

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